Let’s Be Nice (TVT)
An interview with Ammo (vocals/guitar) and Joe McCarthy, Jr. (bass)
by Scott Hefflon
Let’s be honest here; the chance that a truly innovative rock record will be released in our lifetime is about as much a long shot as a Democrat being re-elected (not to mention be elected at all) to the White House. The fact that the latter happened is more a credit to brain-boggling mass-marketing than Presidential competence, an oxymoron if I ever heard one. In the case of Birdbrain‘s Let’s Be Nice, it’s not really an issue of “Goodness, I’ve never heard anything quite like this,” because a record like that would have the consumer appeal of now-scientifically-proven-to-be-edible dog shit. No, Let’s Be Nice is sparklingly novel only in the common sense way it takes trite musical clichés and shreds off the candy-coated veneer to expose the raw roots. While calling them a “band with meaty melodic hooks, ‘tude-splattered lyrics, and rawkus rockin’ sounds pleasantly counterbalanced by passionate, moving ballads” sure sounds swell, we’ve heard that hogwash about every soon-to-be has-been. Please tell me how you’re influenced by the Beatles, and then yelp your indie-credibly off-key drivel about a sweater, being popular, or millions of peaches. I’ll buy your record in the cut-out bin by year’s end. But Birdbrain stretch the limits of rock the way a fresh-faced, quickly jaded band of veteran scenesters on the warpath to national stardumb should. They give you what you already like in intentionally stripped-down, pumped up on espresso songs about talkative chicks, vengeful liars, how ya really want to sleep with your platonic best friend, suicide, getting high, and how pissed we all are about the state of the world. And for once, the razor-sharp tongue-in-cheek rebel yell choruses like “you’re all dead,” “it’s my turn,” and “hey kids, get it on now, yeah, yeah” are the parody of Teen Angst®, instead of the comically serious self-inflicted-bleeding-heart-on-yer-shirtsleeve wavings which are in turn parodied by masters of the art such as “Weird Al” Yankovic and Trent Reznor.
Why are we doing this interview in a coffee shop (the Liberty Cafe in Central Square, gratuitous plug) instead of a bar (like the Rat, ditto)?
Ammo: Well, we used to drink a lot together, me and you, but I’ve been sober for about six months. I’m not an evangelist, but I quit because I got bored with drinking. I know that’s something some people will have difficulty relating to, but that’s the truth. It was also part of the lifestyle change of getting so busy. I didn’t have the time to go to clubs and bars and see bands play and all that shit. Once in the habit of not doing it (the drinking), I really didn’t miss it.
There’s also a massive difference between being a weekend warrior and being a nightly club-hopping, band-reviewing workaholic as a lifestyle. Being a drunk is a full-time job.
Ammo: You know it. Sure, we got dirty with the alcohol… Alcohol’s fine, I don’t take a position on it one way or the other. For me, I replace one obsession with another. The obsession I replaced alcohol with was one with my computer. I used to barely be able to use Microsoft Word, now I’ve got a beautiful Power Station, a big, monster-ass machine, and I stay up all night, every night, working on it. Now I can’t go hang out at The Middle East all night and get so shitfaced I pass out in the bathroom and the manager has to carry me out.
And now you actually have something to show for all your hard work besides pictures of a bloated liver which do, by the way, look really cool when you scan them into PhotoShop.
Ammo: Exactly. And yes, I did do all the graphic imagery for the new album. We hired Sandy Cohen, from Grind, and her boyfriend, Sean McCauley, to do the mechanics, and my roommate John Queeny did the cover image at the last minute.
Taking advantage of the location of your new home, I see.
Ammo: I now live in Allston “Rock City,” in a house on Ashford, off Linden, with all the ex-rockers hanging out together.
What happened to your “Down in Roslindale” motif from Bliss?
Ammo: We were exiled eventually. We’d said everything that could be said about Roslindale, and finally they, sort of politely, asked us to leave before they had to kill us or something. I moved into the city for convenience, really. While we haven’t “abandoned our roots” or anything, we’re not as endeared to them this year as we were last year. Bliss had a lot to do with unfinished business, there was a lot to be said about how fucked up it was to grow up in such a depressed environment. It was time to move on.
Just for historical perspective, what was the theme of your demo tape, Princess?
Ammo: It was about my ex-love at the time. The idea is that men gravitate toward this idea of unbridled passion for a person, and then the two of them eat each other alive and utterly destroy each other’s lives.
Now we have Let’s Be Nice…
Ammo: (laughs) Joe came up with the title.
Joe: He and Mike (ex-drummer) were sitting around talking all these political, angry titles, and I said, “Let’s make nice, huh?”
Ammo: We were talking about getting photos of forced bussing, all the racism, all the fights, and Joe was saying, “Does everything we do have to be hate and violence…”
Let’s Be Nice is still not exactly rainbows and buttercups…
Ammo: Bright pink colors, happiness, and joy. Like Skittles.
Did you guys read your bio?
Ammo: Yeah, I wrote that.
Really?!? You learned to write since I last saw you!
Ammo: Everything I learned about writing I learned from you, Scott Hefflon (TM), Editor/Publisher of Lollipop magazine.
I’ll bet you say that to all your ex-editors when they interview you.
Ammo: Well, ya know… What happened was, first of all, we like to control everything. We’re obsessive-compulsives. We don’t want anyone touching anything that belongs to us. So I’d written a sketch of something, just to see what they thought, but they said they had a writer who’d worked with all these big clients and yadda, yadda, yadda. It was two pages of completely dull text, and everyone hated it. The label came back and asked me to write it.
The label is supportive of your control-freak tendencies?
Ammo: I will gladly go on record as saying how cool TVT has been to us. Especially coming from Boston, where there have been so many broken-hearted bands that have been signed and then been mistreated by their labels. It’s great to work with someone that gives you utter control over all the aspects in the creative element. The budget for this record, the way we wanted to make it, is six times the budget in the contract. And they didn’t squawk a bit. They backed us like we were goddamn U2.
When and why did Jim (Dennis, guitar/backing vocals) leave?
Joe: He left about two months before we went into the studio. He didn’t play the last show. We were supposed to be a four piece, but we ended up a three piece from that night on.
Ammo: 1996 was a wild chain of events. At the beginning of the year, we were all feeling a little discouraged. We’d done some touring, but the record really wasn’t doing all that well, and the label was really trying to make it work. We were at that in-between point where we didn’t know what the next record was going to be like…
So you were pretty secure that TVT would do another record?
Ammo: As far as they were concerned, we hadn’t really made a record for them yet. But we also had a lot of in-fighting going on at the time. I was managing the band back then, while under contract to a label, trying to handle our own money, our own expenses… It was a mess. I was under a lot of strain, these guys were under a lot of strain dealing with my strain, and it was bad. Jim had been rehearsing with our roommate’s band, unbeknownst to us, a band he’d been in prior to Birdbrain. We come from a little fishpond of old friends, all who’ve been in each other’s bands, slept with each other’s wives, called each other’s mothers Mom, ya know. Jim was disillusioned. I was trying to change the band away from guitar-oriented, long-haired, hero rock to something more like my background: pop songs done with a bit of humor…
Bliss had more of a rock feel, like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking …
Ammo: The production definitely leaned more heavily on an edgy guitar. Those elements were definitely in there, but they were brought out in the mix a lot more than I’d originally intended. The original engineer and Jim come from an old school rock background, and their influence had quite an impact on the sound of Bliss. That’s not to say that we’re not a rock band; the stuff Joe and I rock to now is, like, Oldies 103. We listen to bands like The Turtles, Tommy James and the Shondelles, but we’re not like, “Freedom Rock, turn it up, duuudes!” But for melodic influences, there they are. Joe and I are constantly honking around with old Beach Boys songs, and we’ll just destroy them.
I know you also have an old school punk background. But a song like “Inside Out” skates dangerously close to simple catchiness like The Presidents of the USA.
Ammo: We like that record. They blew my mind for three guys. Some of the best pop songs and arrangements I’d ever heard. When I was coming up in the clubs, we had Mission of Burma, SSD, Volcano Suns, Nervous Eaters, Willie Loco… That’s punk, that’s angst, that’s when New York was trying to compete with Boston. It grew up here. They adopted it and called it their own. They had the paparazzi, they had the publishing industry, but we fucking started it. I got to see bands like The Pixies at the Rat. I’m sorry, but that sort of thing just does not happen anymore. Bush at the Paradise in ’97 does not equal The Pixies in ’86 at the Rat.
We then adjourned to the Lollipop offices, because the Liberty, like an increasing number of otherwise enjoyable establishments, does not allow the Constitutional freedom called smoking.
Upon opening the CD, there’s an image of a palmful of pills. What’s that about?
Ammo: That’s a photo of my hand holding my psychiatric medication and…
Joe: Two multi-vitamins, one vitamin B, two Prozacs, and two Lithiums.
Ammo: That’s right. That was my breakfast of champions. That was such a relevant part of the recording process, we felt we had to get a photo of it in there.
What’s the little image on the same page as Mike’s photo?
Ammo: It’s a photo of an unnamed person walking away. It symbolizes Mike’s swansong performance for Birdbrain.
I noticed you called him a session drummer…
Ammo: He retired. Now he lives in a cabin in the Blue Hills with no heat, no electricity. He’s returned to his Thoreauen roots. As I said, 1996 was a very disruptive year, but also a great year in other ways. We lost 50% of our original band, Jim joined another band, Mike retired after finishing this record. Our new drummer, Lance Cole, is working his ass off to learn all the material. He comes from more of a Pantera, double kick drum, background, but he’s making the adjustment.
How’d you hook up with him?
Ammo: He was in a band called Doctor Beukenheimer, whose singer, Clark, is now the singer for Geezer Butler’s band, G/Z/R. That band had a deal with our new manager, Camille, who’s been just a godsend for us.
You finally got a manager?
Ammo: Yeah. To be able to relieve myself of all managerial duties was a major weight of my shoulders. Not to mention a weight off the band from having to deal with me. The first thing Camille did was put us in the studio, living on Long View Farm, for a week, away from the influence of our everyday lives. We wrote seven more songs that week. I went back a week later, by myself, and wrote another seven songs. By the time we were ready to record the album, we had 33 demo version of songs, which blew the label’s mind.
That probably carried the weight to get the budget needed to make an album this expansive.
Ammo: To get the people we wanted, and the studios we wanted… yeah. One of the reasons we wanted Tim Patalan to produce was his ability to score orchestrations I could only hear in my head. He also brought in a list of specific gear he thought we’d want to use. Joe had five vintage basses he was using, I had 15 different guitars, we had amps flown in from Detroit, hand-made prototypes were at our disposal – just crazy-assed stuff. There was stuff everywhere. Not to mention we had the resources of The Farm. When we needed a flugelhorn player, snap!, they found us one. Same thing with a cellist, they found us a violist, they found us a ten-piece childrens choir to perform a song I’d only heard in my nightmares. It was great. We got to explore our Beatles side on the dark, almost ten minute story at the end, “The Ballad of Johnny Love,” and “High,” which is kind of our “Day in the Life.” Those were fantasies we’d always had. Sure, we can write straight-up rock and punk, but we always wanted to create these great sweeping moods of orchestration. If someone gets an impression from one song they hear, they’re going to be surprised at the broad range of material on the record.